Not a play to beat around the bush, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie opens—with a flourish of movie-credit music—on a crème-colored deco office and a studio mogul ranting into the phone about the farkockte alter kockers at Twentieth Century Fox who are making Gentleman’s Agreement, the first Hollywood movie on American anti-Semitism.
The dyspeptic Samuel Baum, it turns out, has his own Jew movie in pre-production. A former glove salesman (“I know gloves like the back of my hand”), Baum is extravagantly played by Ron Leibman and based on producer Samuel Goldwyn. Indeed, Daniel Goldfarb’s play takes off from Goldwyn’s 1946 attempt to make a movie about a WASP heiress whose marriage to a poor but brilliant Jewish lawyer is thwarted by her anti-Semitic father. Ring Lardner Jr., one of several writers Goldwyn employed on this never-made project, remembered the mogul’s angry accusation of betrayal: “You’ve written this script as a Jew not a gentile!”
Goldwyn’s line—here directed at wellborn pinko Garfield Hampson Jr. regarding his script Soil in Utopia—appears in Adam Baum, along with numerous other, apocryphal Goldwynisms. Having played Roy Cohn, Shylock, and the Wonder Rabbi of Miropol, Leibman confidently brings life to this cliché—or rather, to several combined. A barking, boastful, intrusive, insecure vulgarian who pushes food on the writer (actually dying for a scotch), Sam is movie mogul as Jewish mother. And, as such, Leibman is a one-man show. He sweats, he barks, he sighs, he cries. Indeed, Christopher Evan Welch’s Gar is all but swept from the stage by Leibman’s expulsive “nah-ooow” when innocently asked if he’s kosher.
The play’s bitterest joke is Sam as the apostle of Jewish invisibility. There is no Jewish culture in America, he asserts, citing Hollywood movies and Broadway shows as proof. (Goldfarb is surely aware that much of this all-American pop has since been reclaimed as “Jewish.”) Adam Baum is a gloss on Gentleman’s Agreement, in which gentile journalist Gregory Peck passes for Jewish so that he can write a magazine article on anti-Semitism in America. (“Only a Jew could come up with an idea so brilliant,” Baum exults.) The moral, in a sardonic formulation sometimes attributed to Lardner, is that “you should never be rude to a Jew because he might turn out to be a gentile.” Gentile mogul Daryl Zanuck always maintained that his Jewish colleagues tried to talk him out of making Gentleman’s Agreement; similarly, Elia Kazan (who won his first Oscar for directing it) claimed that unnamed “rich Jews” opposed the movie. Goldfarb’s point is how utterly Gentleman’s Agreement was a mogul projection. Certainly it’s the movie Baum wants to make, demonstrating that there is no such thing as Jewish difference. The writer is incredulous, “You have created an American dream that excludes you!”
Adam Baum‘s second act, set in the mogul’s living room in the aftermath of his son’s suitably spectacular bar mitzvah, reveals the Sam to be a fond, if terrifying, father. “You’re my little Mickey Rooney,” he tells the kid (Adam Lamberg, another Leibman straight man, albeit in a plaid suit). “So why aren’t there parties like this in your screenplay?” Baum demands of Gar, who has been invited to do research. Unfortunately, Gar draws the wrong conclusion—he wants to include Torah chanting in his screenplay.
Around the time the elder Baum and junior Hampson confirm each other’s worst stereotypes, Goldfarb makes a glib segue into a shockingly maudlin closer. Before the curtain falls, it’s amply demonstrated that the mogul not only knows from anti-Semitism but from tsuris too, while insuring that his little Adam will not have to say I Never Sang for My Father.